This was a move that almost nobody noticed back in 2022 when the Eagles, cruising through the season at that time, signed offensive tackle Fred Johnson to the practice squad. Johnson had been waived a week earlier by Tampa Bay, his third NFL team in four seasons.
Fred Johnson? Who? What? Why?
"I came in and worked out and they liked what they saw back then and I was looking around at this great team and wondering, 'Why did they even bring me in?' I kind of just went with their belief and they're passion with this," Johnson said after signing a two-year contract through the 2024 season and then playing an outstanding first half in Thursday's preseason finale against Indianapolis at Lincoln Financial Field. "Everybody believed in what they were doing as a team and the offensive linemen, they all believed in Coach (Jeff) Stout (Stoutland). I saw all of these 'Stoutland University' shirts and I knew they had something special going on here."
Originally signed by Pittsburgh after the 2019 NFL Draft following his career at the University of Florida, Johnson hung with the Steelers through mid-October of that season, was waived, and then was claimed off of waivers by Cincinnati. He spent the rest of '19, all of 2020, and part of 2021 with the Bengals, playing in 23 games with six starts.
And then in March of 2022, the Bengals waived Johnson and Tampa Bay claimed him and he was on the move again. He wondered, out loud to himself, if he was nothing more than a "journeyman" offensive lineman, destined to bounce around, year to year, team to team.
After playing in five games with Tampa Bay last season, Johnson was on the streets again, and that's where the connection with Philadelphia, and with Stoutland, comes into the picture. The Eagles saw a young veteran with great height (he's 6-7), good size (326 pounds), long arms, and athletic feet. He was the kind of player Stoutland has molded into a much more than a "journeyman" so many times in his career, and that's exactly what the Eagles think has happened.
Johnson came into Training Camp as a long, long, long shot to make the roster for most observers, but he's been solid from the start. Stoutland coached to Johnson's strengths, and Johnson reciprocated by locking in and having the best summer of his career.
"What's the best thing that is going to work for your skill set? That's what Stout had me doing," Johnson said. "I've got long arms and can keep defenders away from me. Run blocking, I block good angles and just play physical football and then in pass protection play smart football.
"It's worked hand in hand."
Johnson has played left tackle throughout the summer and adds quality depth to the position. He remains a work in progress and knows, deep in his mind, that there is much, much more inside of him. When you're around the best offensive line in the NFL, you play your best football. That's the expectation.
That is what Johnson is doing.
"I'm not at my peak yet," Johnson said. "Stout is going to bring it out in me. He's dedicated to his craft and that's made me want to learn from him and use his techniques to my advantage. I know I can be great. I can be greater than I thought I could ever be. He challenges you day in and day out and you have to ask yourself if you're going to answer the bell or not. When he brought me in, he literally said, 'I don't know why you're on the street and I don't care. You come here and you're going to work.' That's what I did. I rode the wave last season and learned and when I came to camp I was ready to go. I trusted what he was teaching and everything he was teaching and they see something in me.
"I know I have a lot of stuff to work on and I'm excited to do that. Tonight, I played well. I was calm and I was consistent. I was happy being out there with the way I played."